Amidst a crisis: At-Risk Youth Receive Second Chance

Story by Master Sgt. Michael Leslie, Texas Joint Counterdrug Task Force

EAGLE LAKE, Texas – Broken homes. Limited Opportunities. Marginal education. Drugs. Gangs. Violence. For some children, this is everyday life with no way to escape. Their reality is something many only see on the television or in nightmares.

What they may not know, is that there is stability, opportunity and education ready for them at the Texas ChalleNGe Academy located in Eagle Lake. With the support of the Texas National Guard Joint Counterdrug Task Force, the 16-18 year old kids get a chance.

“The youth of TCA come to us from a variety of backgrounds with a myriad of challenges,” said David De Mers, Director of the Texas ChalleNGe Academy. “For most, the challenges they face are not self-inflicted, but they are likely to be a significant determining factor in their futures.

“At TCA, we put cadets back in a position of authority in their lives by assisting youth in removing the barriers to their success,” said De Mers. “In effect, TCA is a reboot for youth.”

Since approximately 2001, the Texas National Guard Joint Counterdrug Task Force has supported the Youth Challenge Program with training, mentorship and coaching to help mold the cadets into a more positive lifestyle.

“It is an opportunity to give them a second chance at life and to strengthen them to become a productive adult that is able to serve its country,” said First Sgt. Celsa Reyes, the Counterdrug Drug Demand Reduction Civil Operations non-commissioned officer in charge. “The opportunity to mentor and coach TCA cadets is immensely gratifying, and can only hope we have a positive impact on their lives and future.”

The 2020 summer class has some unique challenges never before seen in the world.

“This class includes almost 40 cadets who are returning to our campus after having the last class cancelled amidst the initial COVID-19 closures across the State,” said De Mers. “Because of the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, we are not able to accept our full capacity of candidates as only 110 were invited compared to our maximum capacity of 192.”

To make sure to stop the spread of COVID-19, many protocols and measures are in place.

“TCA is closely following the guidelines described by the Center for Disease Control and the Texas Military Department,” said De Mers. “All staff and candidates were tested for COVID-19 prior to the start of this class.

“Additionally, all staff and cadets are being monitored for symptoms and temperatures daily. Staff and cadets wear facemasks all day and socially distance except in rare cases. All classrooms, living spaces, and meeting rooms are sanitized immediately after each use.”

TCA and Counterdrug provided additional measures to ensure the safety of staff and students.

“Because of COVID-19 the class size has been reduced to facilitate social distancing, three masks per cadet have been provided as well as hand sanitizer dispensers installed throughout the campus,” said Sgt. Matthew Harrison, a Counterdrug task force member helping mentor students and staff.

Working through tough circumstances is what the military accomplishes daily, and COVID-19 is no different.

“Texas could not afford to have such an essential program be stopped by a pandemic,” said Reyes. “TCA makes an everlasting impact in our community by teaching youth the necessary tools to be successful and productive members in our society while also earning credits to graduate from High School or gain a GED.”

Texas Counterdrug brings something more to the youth program partnership than just the typical Soldier does in uniform.

“Many of our youth self-attest to the casual use of drugs and alcohol in the past,” said De Mers. “Counterdrug assists with messaging to our youth, but the youth see the positive interaction and role modeling from members of our military and are drawn toward a better model of citizenship.

“Additionally, Counterdrug members bring a wide variety of expertise that is valuable to staff who serve at TCA. Many TCA staff are not former military and do not have the experience with a number of our quasi-military standards.”

The 17 1/2-month ChalleNGe program includes a 5 1/2-month residential phase and a 12-month follow-up mentorship phase.

“During the residential component, candidates earn cadet status, attend school, participate in physical exercise, and focus on the 8 core components of the Youth ChalleNGe Academy,” said De Mers.

“They are Academic Excellence, Physical Fitness, Leadership & Followership, Responsible Citizenship, Job Skills, Service to Community, Health & Hygiene, and Life Coping Skills. During the post-residential phase, staff and mentors work with graduates on their next steps in education, career, and life.”

Eagle Lake is the third location for the Texas program as Hurricane Ike forced the program to move from Galveston Island to Sheffield in 2008 before consolidating resources to the Eagle Lake campus in 2020.

Counterdrug has helped the youth and staff at every location.

“Counterdrug supports TCA by providing professional Soldiers and Airmen that can train and mentor both staff and cadets in current standard operating procedures, in Drill and ceremony, physical fitness, leadership, etcetera,” said Harrison.

“With schools closed, unemployment high and most things a young adult likes to do closed, TCA is the best opportunity in these times to further their academic career and consequently their professional career.”

Many youth within the state struggle each day to survive in their environment and the Texas ChalleNGe Academy is working diligently to provide a safe, secure and empowering atmosphere for their cadets.

“We believe that there are youth throughout Texas that need this program, and we believe we can make this a safe location for programming by following the guidance that is available,” said De Mers. “We recognize that there is risk in any program that connects people together, however, the youth who are at greatest risk in our communities deserve the opportunities that this program provides.”